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New FDA Guidelines Help Consumers Spot Sunscreen Effectiveness

June 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The FDA announced Tuesday a series of changes in what consumers will see on sunscreen labels beginning next summer. Judy Woodruff discusses the new rules with The Skin Cancer Foundation's Dr. Ali Hendi.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, new guidelines for consumers about sunscreen.

After more than three decades, the FDA announced a series of changes in what consumers will see on all sunscreen labels by the summer of 2012. Among the changes makers of sunscreen lotion will have to clarify whether their product protects against what’s known as UVA radiation, as well as UVB radiation, which was already the case. If it doesn’t protect against both, the manufacturer cannot say it protects against skin cancer or early skin aging.

Sunscreen lotions will also no longer be able to advertise that they carry an SPF, or sun protection factor, of greater than 50.

Well, for a closer look at the changes and what people need to know, we’re joined by Dr. Ali Hendi. He’s a dermatologist with The Skin Cancer Foundation.

Dr. Hendi, thank you very much for being with us.

DR. ALI HENDI, Skin Cancer Foundation: Thanks for having me, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what are — I mentioned a couple of them, but, in your words, what are the main changes that people should look for with these new regulations coming out next summer from what exists now?

DR. ALI HENDI: Judy, these are welcome changes from a perspective of dermatologists that care for patients with skin cancer.

Number one is a product has to have UVA and UVB protection to be labeled as a broad spectrum. Up to now, it’s mostly been UVB. But UVA is a critical factor in development of skin cancer and sun damage and aging. A product cannot label itself as being waterproof or a sunblock. Those do not exist. There’s no ingredient that is a total sunblock. And there’s no product that is waterproof.

So, those are some of the main changes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — but we have seen a number of skin lotions — we just put a couple of them here as an example — you know, that still claim to — that they are waterproof.

DR. ALI HENDI: They do. And these provide a false sense of security for consumers.

Consumers need to know that, if they’re outdoors, they need to apply sunscreen every two hours. If they’re swimming or if they’re sweating, they need to apply after they come out of the pool or the water. And there is no such thing as a sunblock. Sunscreen is only one ingredient that helps you protect yourself from the sun.

You should seek shade when you can. You should wear protective clothing, sunglasses, hats. Those are all a package that will help you protect your skin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying nothing truly protects skin totally from damaging sun, right?

DR. ALI HENDI: There’s no total protection.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

DR. ALI HENDI: But you could make smart choices that will minimize the damage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Explain to us, Dr. Hendi, what’s the difference between these UVA and UVB rays? There was already protection, supposedly, against UVB. But what’s the difference with those and the ultraviolet-A rays?

DR. ALI HENDI: Sure.

So, UVB rays are rays that are blocked by the glass in your car, for example. They don’t penetrate very deeply. UVA rays penetrate deeply. And they’re known to cause skin damage. Both UVA and UVB are responsible for skin cancer. So, that’s why it’s paramount to have protection from both UVA and UVB.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what does this mean when the consumer goes to the drugstore and you look at the shelf, and there are dozens, hundreds sometimes, of different brands and types of sunscreen? What does the consumer look for now?

DR. ALI HENDI: You know, it’s really challenging for a consumer. And I get that question every day from patients: What should I look for?

These guidelines would help. But for the time being, look for a product that has UVA and UVB protection. It specifically says UVA protection, a product that has SPF 30 or higher. And make sure you apply that product before you leave the house. And then if you’re outdoors, you reapply it every two hours.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are, as we mentioned, a dermatologist. You follow this closely.

What do you see in your patients in terms of sun damage as it’s changed over the years?

DR. ALI HENDI: You know, I’m seeing more and more young patients with skin cancer. It used to be that skin cancer was a disease of the elderly. You had to be over 40 years old to get it.

Every day and every week, I have patients in their late 20s, sometimes even in their late teens, or 30s and 40s with skin cancer. And the damage we’re seeing today is not the damage from last summer or the summer before. This is the damage from 10, 20, 30 years ago that is popping up now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and I was reading today that it often is affecting young women as much as, if not more than, young men.

DR. ALI HENDI: There was a study that showed that the rate of skin cancers in young women is increasing more rapidly than men. There’s a lot of reasons for it.

One of the factors is definitely sun exposure and tanning beds. Young women are known to use tanning beds more often than men. And that could be a factor in young women having a much higher rapidly growing rate of skin cancers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you urge your patients not to use tanning beds at all?

DR. ALI HENDI: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why not?

DR. ALI HENDI: Because you’re damaging your skin. You’re paying somebody to damage your skin.

Tanning beds are the tobacco of 20, 30 years ago. That’s the stage we’re at now. The WHO recently claimed or labeled…

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the World Health Organization.

DR. ALI HENDI: Yes, exactly, the World Health Organization — tanning beds or U.V. radiation as a known carcinogen. If you know something is a known carcinogen and that’s a product that causes cancer, why would you pay to be exposed to it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just quickly, you do expect these new rules to make a difference?

DR. ALI HENDI: I sure do.

And, before, patients had to go to a dermatologist to seek recommendations on sunscreens. I still recommend seeing a dermatologist for a skin check, but consumers are going to have an easier time picking the right product off the shelf once these new regulations go into effect next summer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Ali Hendi, we thank you very much for being with us.

DR. ALI HENDI: Thank you, Judy.